Dentistry leadership steers Faculty into first U of T reopening
Successful process due to months of complex planning
By Diane Peters
This fall, it’s business-not-quite-as-usual at the Faculty of Dentistry. Students are learning mostly online, and clinics and labs are back up and running, but at much lower capacity, with stringent infection control measures in place, including plenty of PPE and social distancing.
All looks orderly and calm, but months of heavy work — amid great uncertainty — went into getting the Faculty where it is now.
First at U of T to reopen
Dentistry, in fact, was the first faculty to do a partial reopening at the University of Toronto. In July, the first clinics and labs opened, while other faculties remained dark.
“All campus activity had been shut down, but we made the case to the central university that while we can do a lot of teaching online, we can’t do it all that way because Dentistry of course requires hands on practical training,” says dean Daniel Haas.
According to Haas, after the Faculty and the university shut down in March, plans got underway immediately to sort the complexities of reopening again, eventually. “From that point on, it was nonstop work,” recalls Haas. “People were working all hours, every day.”
"While today’s safety protocols roll out, tomorrow’s needs are front of mind"
Leadership at the Faculty, including Haas and the other senior leaders, followed a few strong philosophies as they moved forward. “The first priority was health and safety for everyone,” says Haas. “That had to be balanced with academic needs.”
Meanwhile, the team focused on communication. That entailed the dean regularly emailing messages to the students, faculty, staff, and instructors, as well as posting on the Faculty web site. The other senior leaders also kept in touch with their stakeholders.
For instance, Bernhard Ganss, vice dean of research, hosted question and answer sessions on Microsoft Teams every Wednesday afternoon. “We plan on keeping it until the end of the year,” he says. While the early conversations entailed he and his team conveying much-needed information, now it sees researchers sharing ideas and resources — almost replacing the kind of face-to-face conversations they would normally have in the halls.
Along with Faculty meetings, the dean and the other senior leaders spoke often with their peers at other university faculties. There were also consultations with facilities management staff and the university’s Environmental Health and Safety office, plus external stakeholders.
“We don’t make the rules, but we are subject to the rules of the university, the RCDSO, and the province of Ontario,” says Ernest Lam, associate dean of graduate education.
Clinical, research activities resumed
For reopening, the top priority was to get students back in clinic, so they could progress with their training, but also offer much-needed care to patients.
For that, James Posluns, director of clinical affairs, came up with what he called the “2-2-2” plan. Each of the graduate specialty programs at the Faculty would be given two days out of the week to have two students allowed to see patients at a time. And they would try this plan initially for two weeks, starting in early July.
“It worked out well,” says Lam, noting that the students rotated, so everyone got a chance to see patients and will ramp up or wheel back depending on the COVID environment. “We are working hard to ensure uniformity of students’ clinical experiences, and that they have appropriate time to gain their hands-on training,” he adds.
Along with fewer students and patients, the Faculty was transformed with restricted access, additional signage, plexiglass and other physical barriers and reminders to keep everyone physically distanced in the Edward Street building.
The trial period went well and was extended through the summer. As of September 1, each specialty program ramped up to having two students in clinic at a time, five days a week.
“It was a very gradual, very phased approach. The plan was to do baby steps first before we started to increase it,” says Haas.
"Everyone understands the need to do things differently, to do things safely"
The physical building, including its assets and limitations, has been top of mind, as well. For example, UofT engineers proactively assessed and enhanced the building’s ventilation system and filters, as one such measure.
Meanwhile, also in July, more researchers were allowed in the labs. During lockdown, three Faculty researchers had exemptions to work on their research, but now Ganss hoped to get more back to work.
Luckily, the research team already had an online booking system used for shared facilities, and it could be expanded. One devoted staff member got to work setting things up, and soon the research arm of the Faculty was ready for a controlled, fully tracked return.
Everyone going into labs has to be screened and would head to campus only for work they cannot do at home. Admittedly, many booked themselves in for a half hour to start, just to fetch precious research materials. Ganss says on any given day, there are about 30 researchers coming into the Faculty, with labs operating at about 30 per cent capacity.
In August, meanwhile, the Faculty began opening up undergraduate DDS clinics, which began with a measured start of 25 per cent patient capacity. That capacity then increased to 50 per cent in September.
The simulation labs for the DDS students also opened in August, working at 50 per cent capacity.
In September, more undergraduates will join the carefully run student clinics, and more will attend the sim labs, too. The lectures will happen online in either synchronous, real-time videoconference lectures, or asynchronous, pre-recorded lectures students can access on their own schedules.
In many ways, the Faculty looks and feels different, with fewer people on campus, controlled access to the building and mask wearing in the halls. There are more opportunities to access hand sanitizers, and reminders to stay two metres apart from others.
While today’s safety protocols roll out, tomorrow’s needs are front of mind for Haas and the Faculty’s senior leadership. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the Faculty had invested in the architectural planning necessary to conceptualize new clinical spaces suitable for the future of clinical care and teaching. Now, the pandemic has made that planning essential, and the the Faculty will need to invest heavily in reimagined clinical spaces.
Discovery and learning are well underway at the Faculty. It’s not quite the same, but priorities of safety, learning and research excellence, have guided leadership in decision-making thus far.
Haas says cooperation has been key to making the reopening go smoothly. “Everyone has been great about it. Everyone understands the need to do things differently, to do things safely.”
That cooperative spirit will continue, as Haas and the Faculty’s senior leadership work to ensure that the school can provide excellence in care and a superior educational experience in state-of-the-art clinical and teaching spaces.
Photo: Dean Daniel Haas stands before Dentistry building (Jeff Comber)